Geoff Lester: London – With the UK enjoying their hottest summer for 40 years, Newmarket are expecting bumper crowds for their big July meeting which starts on Thursday.
Not only are both the Guineas run on the somewhat soulless Rowley Mile but also their prestigious two-year-old races in the autumn, yet the popular July Course, which lends itself to glorious weather, is far more relaxing, famed for its Panama hats, summer frocks and endless jugs of Pimms.
Virtually no rain over the last six weeks has left the ground rattling fast at the headquarters of British Flat racing, but that won’t worry BLUE POINT, who can win the feature £500,000 Group 1 Darley July Cup on Saturday.
Prior to Royal Ascot, Harry Angel, whom Godolphin bought last summer, was Europe’s number one sprinter, but a freak accident in the stalls in the Diamond Jubilee, in which he injured a leg, has meant the clock has beaten the defending champion, who might not reappear until Haydock in September.
However, a brilliant performance at the Royal meeting from Godolphin’s Blue Point saw him promoted to pole-position in the boys in blue’s pecking order of sprinters, and trainer Charlie Appleby has no qualms about stepping back up to 1200m.
He said: “It’s probably true that Blue Point had the run of the race in the King’s Stand Stakes (1000m) at Royal Ascot as the blistering early pace set by Battaash and Lady Aurelia suited us perfectly.
“That, together with his supposed best form being over the minimum trip, has some professionals not convinced about Blue Point, but they forget that he broke the 1200m track record at Ascot when beating Harry Angel last year, and for me he is equally effective at either distance.”
US Navy Flag, last season’s champion two-year-old in Europe, tries to emulate Stravinsky (1999) and Mozart (2001), both of whom Coolmore successfully switched back to sprinting in this speed test after finding 1600m stretching their stamina.
Aidan O’Brien, who has had only half the number of Group 1 winners that he could boast at the corresponding stage of last season’s record-breaking summer, is hopeful that US Navy Flag can bounce back from what was a third consecutive disappointment in the St James’s Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot.
But, having tipped him that day, I walked off the stands muttering “never again”, so he’s not on my short list.
More danger may come from the three-year-olds Eqtidaar and Sands Of Mali, who finished first and second in the Group 1 Commonwealth Cup at the Royal meeting.
This is their first crack at the older horses, but the younger brigade have won two of the last three runnings of this race, and fast ground is clearly not a problem to either of these progressive speedsters.
It would be great to see Redkirk Warrior redeem his reputation before he heads back to Australia. He was first beaten in the Diamond Jubilee, and, ironically, he had beaten the Ascot winner Merchant Navy when they clashed previously in Melbourne, and with a different track and being reunited with his Aussie jockey, Chris Hayes is hoping for a better performance.
We might get the stake money to lump on Blue Point by backing John Gosden’s FIRST ELEVEN in Wednesday’s Group 3 Bahrain Trophy, which kick-starts the three-day Festival.
There weren’t many more unluckier losers at Royal Ascot than First Eleven in the King George V Handicap – Frankie Dettori was imprisoned in a pocket at the 200m pole and would have won had he escaped earlier – and though this is a step up in grade, Gosden has always rated this improving young stayer.
If you run these sprint handicaps 10 times you’ll probably get eight different results, so, while FOXTROT LADY finished only fifth behind Encrypted at York last time, Andrew Balding’s filly was twice stopped in her tracks at a crucial stage, and I fancy she can take her revenge in the £100,000 charge over 1200m.
Dee Ex Bee was exposed for pace in a slow-run Irish Derby, and the Epsom runner-up attempts to get back on track in the Group 2 Princess of Wales’s Stakes the same day.
But Dee Ex Bee has St Leger written all over him in my book, and I’d rather have an Eachway bet on Gosden’s MUNTAHAA.
Aidan O’Brien is strongly represented in the other Group 2 on the opening day, the July Stakes, with VAN BEETHOVEN the one I like. He is the type of horse who does just enough, but is as tough as teak and is preferred to stablemate Land Force.
It’s the fillies who take centre-stage on Friday, with ALPHA CENTAURI, arguably the most impressive winner of the entire Royal Ascot meeting in the Group 1 Coronation Stakes, hard to oppose in the Falmouth Stakes.
Alpha Centauri, who has the Breeders’ Cup Mile as her ultimate target, has blossomed in this spell of fast ground – she also hosed up in the Irish 1000 Guineas – and, though O’Brien could throw both Rhododendron and Clemmie in the ring, I will stay with Jessie Harrington’s filly while the going remains on top.
Highlight of the week for the juvenile fillies is the Group 2 Duchess of Cambridge Stakes, and I will stay loyal to O’Brien’s FAIRYLAND even though the formbook suggests she is held by the unbeaten Main Sequence on Albany Stakes form from Ascot.
Fairyland is rated one of O’Brien’s best youngsters, and she was unlucky at Ascot in that she won her race on the far rail, only to be swamped close home by the surge on Main Sequence up the centre of the course.
On the same day I can recommend Gosden’s WISSAHOCKEN in what looks a competitive 2000m handicap. He impressed me when winning at York recently, finding more when pressed, and the vibes from Newmarket work-watchers since have been encouraging.
Changing tack, while the racing world idolises the Aussie superstar Winx, what great news that Godolphin are planning to try and gatecrash the mare’s attempt for an unprecedented fourth Cox Plate in Sydney in the autumn.
Winx, 18 times a Group 1 heroine, will eclipse Black Caviar’s record of 25 straight wins if she carries on where she left off after her mid-season break on her return on 18 August, but come Cox Plate time she might have a serious rival in Godolphin’s Benbatl.
Though disappointing in the Queen Anne at Royal Ascot, Benbatl is a tough nut to crack over 2000m on fast ground, and Saeed bin Suroor’s Dubai Turf winner could give Winx her roughest ride yet.